Last week saw the anniversary of Samuel Pepys’s birth in 1633, and Twitter was abuzz with the inevitable superlatives – the greatest English diarist! the founder of the modern Royal Navy! One only needed Queen to belt out ‘Pepys, Saviour of the Universe’, with Brian Blessed bellowing ‘Sam’s alive?!’, and the hyperbolic overdose would have been complete. There’s been plenty from this ‘Daily Mail headline’ school of historical analysis of late – witness the hysterical reaction in the Twitterverse to recent defence cuts (‘Navy at its smallest since Henry VIII!’, ‘Army at its smallest since the Zulu war!!/Agincourt!!!/Mount Badon!!!!’ and so forth, as if such comparisons have any validity at all – one might as well come up with such equally astute observations as ‘Fewer novels featuring starving urchins being written now than in Charles Dickens’s day’). No doubt this is all part and parcel of the Anglo-Saxon world’s obsession with rankings. Pepys can’t just be an important diarist or an undoubtedly competent naval administrator – he has to be the best ever, the greatest thing since sliced bread in his particular field. Witness the similarly OTT praise of Dickens during recent weeks (not just a great novelist – the bicentennial boy has to be THE GREATEST!!) and the endless stream of polls in newspapers or programmes on TV, usually produced by bored journalists during slow news days or by TV producers who can’t think of anything more original: the Greatest Briton of All Time, the world’s best bookshops/US presidents/public conveniences, the 50 Greatest TV Meerkats, and so on.

To be fair, of course, this isn’t entirely a failing of glib modern culture. I blame the Victorians and their obsession with classifying and ranking anything and everything – positions in class at school (no longer politically correct, of course, which begs the question of why ranking the schools themselves in exactly the same way is acceptable…), league tables for all sports, and so on. Not long ago I studied the Admiralty lists of those who sat the examinations to become apprentices in the royal dockyards just after World War I, and they were listed in result order, by dockyard, from the very best, who obtained 600/600, down to the very worst, an intellectual titan at Devonport who scored 17. (These days, the results would be anonymised and circulated only internally to spare candidates stress-related conditions, to keep their personal data confidential and to avoid infringing their human rights; then, the candidates were listed by name and the results printed and published. That must have brought joy unbounded to a certain Devon household in the spring of 1919…) Another manifestation of the tendency to classify, rank and affix hyperbolic labels is probably the worst naval history book I’ve ever read – and trust me, there’s a lot of competition for that particular ‘Daily Mail’ title – Evelyn Berckman’s Creators and Destroyers of the English Navy, published in 1974. This took the 17th century rulers of Britain, then rigidly classified them alternately as ‘creators’ and ‘destroyers’. The breathtaking legerdemain required to classify Charles I as a ‘creator’ and Oliver Cromwell as a ‘destroyer’ is still one of the most unintentionally hilarious pieces of historical writing I’ve ever encountered.

Returning to Pepys, it was Sir Arthur Bryant, about as reactionary a historian as one could imagine, who in 1938 coined the term ‘the saviour of the Navy’ to describe him (can one be simultaneously the founder and the saviour of something, I wonder?), and a wonderful Admiralty information film of 1941 took very much the same line. I know plenty of people today who still hold Pepys in this sort of regard. Indeed, I sit on the committee of the Samuel Pepys Club, which exists to revere his memory, and am very proud to have won the Samuel Pepys Award, so I’m certainly not going to knock ‘Pepysians’. Moreover, having spent an unconscionably large percentage of my life working on Pepys’s manuscripts, both in the glorious library he created in Cambridge and in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, I probably have a better awareness of and respect for what he achieved than a great many people. Let’s not equivocate about it: Samuel Pepys was both an utterly fascinating, if deeply flawed, human being and, professionally, a truly great man. But it’s always seemed to me that the virtual canonisation of Pepys and the consequent exaggeration of his achievements have done a disservice both to him and to those who were just as responsible as he was, and frequently rather more responsible, for those achievements.

An example. Why did Bryant describe Pepys as the ‘saviour of the navy’? Essentially because of the evidence contained in one book*, written by that disinterested author, S. Pepys, based on original documents and statistics largely drawn up by the equally disinterested civil servant, S. Pepys, with the sole purpose of exculpating the record in office of the entirely disinterested politician, S. Pepys. If you imagine that in 300 years time Peter Mandelson’s memoirs have become the sole accepted authority on the record of the Blair/Brown government, then you’re getting pretty close to equivalence; although not even the noble Baron of Hartlepool and Foy had the audacity to cook his own statistics quite as brazenly as Pepys did. Then again, why would anyone – yes, even on Twitter – claim that Pepys might be the founder of the modern Royal Navy, rather than, say, a certain short admiral from Norfolk, whose legacy permeates today’s fighting force in an overt and all-pervasive way that Pepys’s certainly does not? (If you’re in doubt try asking the denizens of any naval mess, even wardrooms, what they know about [a] Pepys as against [b] Nelson. I’ve done it, and the results are both revealing and depressing.) It’s essentially because Pepys is regarded as the creator of systems, of structures, of methods; in other words, of the navy as an institution, rather than as a fighting force. So does he actually deserve that accolade, that particular ‘Daily Mail headline’ – and if not, who does? I’ll return to that question next week!

(* The Memoires of the Royal Navy, 1690: I contributed the introduction to a new edition of this, published in 2010. Certain online bookshops list Pepys and I as co-authors – probably one of the greatest but most bizarre accolades I’ve ever received!)

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